Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Feeling of Reason

Mr. Dr. Marshall writes to say that he believes my take on the uselessness of those protesting the absurdity of our political system is too harsh. After all, these gentleman are just trying to inject some rationality into the debate by pointing out that the 'arguments' being bandied about are specious. Isn't that a good thing?

Rather than agree with so obviously reasonable an objection, let me push it into the absurd.

What we don't need is more rationality. My point is that this is what is getting us into difficulty in the first place. We have a lovely post-enlightenment image of a rational scientific debate, where we all sit down to discuss the issues and examine the evidence and come to some conclusion about how to act. We imagine that this is what goes on in the brain of a scientist, and we imagine that something analogous goes on in the political brain of the ideal democracy. In both cases we think that by carefully studying and reasoning about the world in an impartial and politically unbiased manner, we can come to some true representation of what it is actually like. In the case of science, we think that this will let us get an accurate picture of nature, and in the case of a politics, we think that this same unbiased process will put us in touch with the will of the people, which is of course what we imagine democracy is supposed to represent.

Unfortunately, representation is a completely flawed concept. There is no such thing as a objective picture of the world or of a will (this is not that same thing as saying that there isn't a world or a will, by the way. This is not a relativist argument). Being part of reality, we cannot take a complete picture of it, we can just bounce light off of some of it and see how it reflects back on our part. If you are skeptical of this reasoning in the case of science, or if the argument sounds unnecessarily metaphysical there, just consider the political question.

Because in the case of politics it's pretty obvious that there's no "will of the people" that politician's are supposed to represent. There is a mechanism that translates our actions (our votes, our talk, our purchases, etc ...) into political and legal reactions. That is all. Politics is a machine. Everything is a machine, but it's especially easy to see it with politics, because instead of a bunch of tiny neurons you have a bunch of giant egos whose bumping and grinding are easier to observe. I mean, this stuff makes headlines every day. Strangely though, we have a tendency to think that these easy to observe interactions are somehow 'distortions' of the real will of the populace. We imagine that if we just had more reasonable politicians or better journalism or whatever, we could stop playing these silly who-slept-with-the-Argentine-Firecracker type games and get down to the serious business of doing what the people 'really want', without all the 'politics as usual'. And of course, not only would we get to doing what the people really want, but we would clearly discover that they really want peace, sustainability, and really good subsidized sushi, because ... well ... because that is what all reasonable people want ¿no?

But this is ludicrous reasoning. How do you find out what the people really want? How do you implement it and how do you evaluate whether you really gave it to them? Do you ask them to vote? Do you take polls? How do you decide what to ask or whose votes to count? These things all require a mechanism. It doesn't matter whether the mechanism is spelled out in a legal document or hacked together through political horse trading or enforced by a military, it's still a mechanism. There's no will of the people in any of those cases, there is merely what the people do, and that is precisely what a political system is about. It is the integration of all the various pressures, social and economic and technological, that make up our body politic. It's the mechanism by which these forces are translated into action, like a lever or a Rube Goldberg device. And there is no way around having a mechanism. There will always be a machine at bottom. There will never be anything like political 'intuition' where the will of the people is somehow simply and mysteriously done (though one might say that the Nazis were aiming at that -- as Konrad Heiden once put it, "Propaganda is not the art of instilling an opinion in the masses. Actually it is the art of receiving an opinion from the masses").

This is why moaning about the theatricality of politics and pining for a more 'rational' political discourse is dangerous. Because what would rationality even mean here. Ultimately, if you look at rationality in a more evolutionary context you realize that it is actually a way to get you to stop looking at how the machines works. It's the mechanism by which you give someone the feeling that they can quit asking questions, that they have reached some common sense that is just obvious and doesn't need more debate. Reason is perfectly opposed to empiricism, and politics is an engine, not a camera.

So injecting more 'reason' into politics by encouraging politicians to debate one another like scientists would not make it more 'representative' and would not make it any less of a machine. It would just create a technocratic subclass of the political machine, a phenomenon that is not without its parallels in history (Chomsky has penned some good stuff about this). This might give us the feeling that our leaders were being more rational, which might shut us up for the moment, but without any more feedback between how these newly vulcanized leaders make decisions and the effects of their decisions on the populace, it would only be more rational in the eye of the beholder. I mean, the last time we got these hyper rational planners in government we ended up with mutually assured destruction (imminently rational) the domino theory, and a giant highway system that is still hanging around our necks. All societies are rational and irrational in different ways, even one run by slide-rule wielding geeks or by google. A more rational politics will not save us, even if it was under the control of benevolent dictator geeks with our 'best interest' in mind. It's not stable and its definition is not immanent.

I'm phrasing this all in terms of politics, but I think you can extend the logic to wonder about how rationality works in general. For example, why is a mathematical proof convincing? Why do you accept that 2 +2 = 4? Mostly, I think, because it gives you a good feeling to be able to follow the algorithm. The algorithm isn't rational or irrational though, it just executes. The feeling that something is reasonable or proven true is just that -- a feeling. Rationality makes us feel good because following the twists and turns of a complicated algorithm and grasping the pattern it produces makes us feel good. And this, presumably, is because it was and is useful. Once we developed the ability to get a pleasant buzz off of figuring out which berries grew where at what time of the year, we immediately started dosing each other with this same drug, because the most useful thing in the world was getting someone else to help you out. So we learned to exploit this feeling of 'understanding' which wasn't any less powerful when all I was doing was using the same mechanism to get you excited about the fact that I had just proved there were only 72 angels that could dance on the head of a pin, or that it was a terrible idea to kill people.

Reason was originally one of the moral emotions that bound us together. And it still is, for better or worse. I'm not saying that the emotion can't be useful, but you certainly can't trust it in your own brain, and it's even less the basis for a system of government.

1 comment:

adamski said...

This discussion reminds me of a quote from a Bush aide from this article.

"The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''"

Politics is largely creating "perceived reality" through rhetoric. Republicans (and many Democrats) have been creating and perpetuating such extremely distorted ideas of what the American dream is, that we now have all these various troubles. That is why calling them out on their lies is necessary and crucial (see, but not ultimately not enough. To push things in a new direction requires emotion-based rhetoric of alternate dreams.

So if the problem is rampant principal-agent conflict between citizens and Congress/President, the cure has to start with emotional appeals to the citizenry.